Germany’s hope that Russian president Vladimir Putin might tolerate a face saving opportunity for all parties involved in the Ukrainian crisis is fading fast. A nebulous solution at the negotiating table is turning into a fata morgana. Putin is forcing Angela Merkel’s hand. The chancellor and her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, will soon face a stark choice—one between Russia and her Eastern partners in the European Union. This is a choice that Merkel has tried to avoid since the crisis erupted.

The chancellor could choose to appease Russia at all costs and preserve a tenuous relationship with the powerful country to the east, hoping that one day it will be free from Putin. But sticking to her cautious step-by-step approach in this case would not only alienate most Eastern Europeans, including those in Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic States, but also irritate a suspicious Washington that is growing tired of being lectured by Germans about the so-called NSA scandal. Alternatively, she could draw a line, agree to more than just symbolic sanctions against Russia’s rulers, and jeopardize her fraught relationship with Moscow.

For days, Merkel tried to square the circle, talking about contact groups, the deployment of international observers in Crimea—in short, advocating various diplomatic delay tactics that would eventually provide some cover for the fact that, ultimately, Crimea is lost to Russia.

Indeed, the real challenge is not so much to preserve a Ukrainian Crimea, but rather to make sure that the whole of Ukraine does not turn into easy prey for the Russian ruler. Please don’t misunderstand—Putin’s badly disguised forces do not need to invade the rest of the country in order to control it. An occupied Crimea would project enough Russian power beyond the peninsula, but only if the rest of the country turns into a hopeless place, riddled with chronic corruption and permanent political instability.

In order to avoid this outcome, Merkel has made it clear that she will be less reluctant to provide financial help to Kiev—far less reluctant than in the case of Greece. Indeed, her reaction to the events so far suggests that she thinks this crisis is far more serious than the debt crisis triggered by Greece four years ago.

Ultimately, both the debt crisis and the situation in Ukraine are powerful reminders for Merkel that Europe’s failures at speeding up the process of economic and political integration carry a price. If Merkel really thinks that Putin lives in a different world, the feeling must be mutual. That is why the Judo-loving Russian president has turned a moment of tactical weakness—the fall of his protégée, the president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovich—into a possible strategic advantage.

It is up to Merkel to rally Europeans around a bolder strategy and reassure Americans that, over time, Europe will be capable of dealing with its regional challenges. Such a strategy will have to involve targeted sanctions with lots of bite, such as targeting Russian banks that are known for dealing in dirty money or funnel funds for arms deals that are helping some of the worst dictators around the world
However, it is also clear that imposing sanctions on Russia could carry a real price for the German economy very soon. Putin may have interpreted Merkel’s stubborn reluctance to provide financial help for fellow euro zone members in the past few years as a sign of national egoism that can be easily exploited. It is now up to Merkel to make a careful cost benefit analysis and prove him wrong mindful of the fact that, in Putin’s Russia, cool-headed delay tactics are not perceived as a sign of resolve.

  • James D

    What exactly suggests that Yanukovich is a protegee of Putin? Most accounts have him as merely a corrupt thug playing both Europe and Russia, with very little Russian support of the disgraced Ukrainian President (as supported by this Op-Ed: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/02/21/opinion/dougherty-putin-headache-ukraine/ ).

    Moreover, Washington should be growing irritated by the lecturing Germans about the aptly-called NSA Scandal, but won’t the pressure of the NSA Scandal grow larger as more and more allied countries think, “How is it possible that the US spent money and resources spying on us, yet have no idea about the motives and policies coming from Putin and Russia? Where are their priorities? More importantly, where are their allegiances?”

    In short, Europe can’t be expected to act because they rely so heavily on Russian energy and any disruption to that supply would be extremely detrimental to the European economy. Washington is now under more pressure to act if only to save face from their failed spying program. As Vice President Al Gore once said, “If you’re trying to find a needle in a haystack, it doesn’t make sense to add more hay.” The US prides itself on military prowess and intelligence and yet couldn’t see this coming because of all of the static they decided to gather instead.

  • K Bledowski

    @James D
    I couldn’t disagree more.

    @A Privetera
    On the money.

    This is a crisis that landed right on Europe’s doorstep yet most Europeans somehow think it’s America’s job to solve it. This is my impression from scanning the European commentariat over the past week where most eyes are fixated on Washington and few on Brussels when searching for solutions. The only long-term path to peace and security in Europe runs through a united EU-NATO-U.S. response and posture. It’s Washington and Brussels acting in unison, not just Washington, and not just Brussels.

    This may appear new to many a European. In the first 40 years of NATO’s existence, U.S. taxpayers hugely underwrote that peace. Now, the Europeans must chip in. To many, the bill may loom large because it’s new and it’s unfamiliar. If economic warfare there be, it could mean higher energy costs, interruption in trade or deflected trade flows, and large swings in wealth through valuation losses on assets. Freedom, after all, is not free. The last thing Europe needs now are statements like this one from Hans-Werner Sinn (last Friday): “Wir können uns Sanktionen gegen Russland nicht leisten“.

    If Europe can’t afford economic pain to safeguard its peace and prosperity, then the Atlantic alliance will cease to have meaning for Europe’s American allies.